Welcome to this week’s Triple Play. This week, we examine the hottest team in baseball, take a look at what could be the end of one of the most fascinating careers in recent baseball history, and more (including our weekly Wainwright Walk Watch). Off we go:
Here they go again. The A’s are on another one of their white-hot streaks. Since last losing two games in a row on May 14-15 versus the Rangers, the A’s have gone 18-5 and now sit a half-game behind first-place Texas in the AL West. It’s not just a home-field advantage, either; Oakland has played 15 road games during this stretch. Whereas previous A’s teams have had dominating starting pitching, it is the bullpen that has been the most dominating feature of the 2013 team. Closer Grant Balfour and setup men Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook have slammed the door on the opposition, each boasting an ERA below 2.00 and park-adjusted ERA+ numbers over 200. The rotation is anchored by 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, who has walked six batters in 77 innings this season. He doesn’t strike out batters the way he used to, but he adapted quite well, as demonstrated by his two complete-game shutouts. Everyone else in the A’s rotation is 26 or younger. The oldest position player is 33-year-old outfielder Coco Crisp, who serves as the team’s spark plug, with a .383 on-base percentage, 13 steals, 40 runs scored and 22 RBI. The blossoming star of the team, though, is outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who leads the team with 13 home runs, despite hitting only .236/.305/.492. The flashes of brilliance from the 27-year-old Cuban defector are tantalizing, to say the least. But the real revelation this season has been third baseman Josh Donaldson, who we discussed in last week’s Triple Play. His .328/.395/.528-9-42-2-33 hitting line has deepened the A’s lineup and eased pressure on Josh Reddick, who has battled injuries and an awful slump so far this season. Obviously, the A’s won’t continue to play at a .750-plus clip, but even if with the inevitable regression to the means, they have a strong enough team to be the challenger to the Texas Rangers that most analysts expected the Los Angeles Angels to be. Underestimate the Athletics at your own risk.
Rick Ankiel, New York Mets/???
Unfortunately, it looks like this might be the end of the line for one of the most intriguing players of the past 12-15 years. The Mets, desperate for competent outfielders, designated Ankiel for assignment prior to Sunday’s game against the Marlins. If this is in fact the end for Ankiel, Saturday’s game was not a satisfying conclusion: four at-bats in the 20-inning marathon, three strikeouts. Between his time this season with the Astros and Mets, Ankiel did manage to bash seven home runs and drive in 18, but he hit just .188/.235/.422 with 60 strikeouts in 136 plate appearances and drew only eight walks. His combined OPS+ was 79. That was just too far below replacement level for any team to accept. Since leaving the St. Louis Cardinals after the 2009 season, Ankiel played for the Royals, Braves, Nationals, Astros and Mets. He was a serviceable part-time player with Washington in 2011, but was overexposed due to too much playing time. Since then, his strike zone discipline, never great to begin with, has further deteriorated. The Mets are going nowhere this season and are much better served to give Kirk Nieuwenhuis, 25, and Juan Lagares, 24, a chance to stick in the majors. If it is in fact the end for Ankiel, he can look back at two distinctly different career paths – both of which ended up in the major leagues. From the dominating rookie year, to the shocking meltdown in the 2000 playoffs, to the switch from pitcher to outfielder, to the legendary home run in his first game back in the majors as an outfielder (all with the Cardinals), to the journey around baseball as a part-time player, Ankiel has had one of the most fascinating careers of any professional athlete. He will, and should, be remembered as one of the most unique baseball players of his generation.
Playing the Name Game
Player A: 4-6, 5.82 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 78 ERA+
Player B: 2-4, 6.30 ERA, 1.65 WHIP, 72 ERA+
Talk about ugly. Player A is Jon Garland, who was designated for assignment Saturday by the Colorado Rockies. Player B is Jeff Francis, who replaced Garland in the rotation Saturday and pitched four largely ineffective innings in his return. Remember that scene in The Last Boy Scout, where Bruce Willis’ character catches his best friend hiding in his bedroom closet and asks him “head or gut?” That’s the kind of choice that Rockies fans have to endure with these two pitchers. Frankly, neither one has any business being on a major-league roster. Garland was tolerable in April, but has been shellacked regularly since then. Francis, who barely throws harder than knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, is hopefully just holding a place in the Rockies’ rotation until Roy Oswalt is ready to go (he is scheduled for two more starts at Double-A Tulsa). If you are a fantasy owner who actually had Garland or Francis on your team, your first move isn’t to dump them from your roster – it’s to ask yourself whether you should even be playing fantasy baseball in the first place.
Player A: .241/.285/.409, 10 HR, 25 RBI, 4 SB, 25 runs
Player B: .220/.364/.429, 10 HR, 31 RBI, 1 SB, 26 runs
Player A is the Yankees’ Vernon Wells. Player B is Josh Willingham of the Twins. Remember Wells’ fast start, where he smacked six homers and slugged .544 with a .911 OPS in April? Yeah, that’s just a fond memory now. Wells may as well be wearing concrete shoes with the way he is sinking. It started in May, when his average slumped to .221, but he hit four more homers and ended the month with 24 RBI. He was still being reasonably productive, especially considering what had been expected of him before the season started. The wheels have completely come off the wagon now. Wells is hitting a pathetic .115 in June with no extra-base hits. If fantasy owners haven’t dumped him yet, the time has probably come. Willingham, on the other hand, might be snapping out of a funk that dogged him the entire month of May. Since the calendar flipped to June, though, Willingham has hit a home run and driven in six. Despite the poor May, Willingham is still on pace to hit 28 dingers and drive in close to 90. Hopefully you weren’t expecting the 34-year-old to repeat the 35-110-85 line he put up in 2012, as that was clearly an outlier compared to the rest of his career. Isn’t it interesting, though, how similar these two stat lines are for these two players? One is slumping his way to the bench, while the other is showing signs of heating up.
- Time for our weekly Wainwright Walk Watch. All season long, we are keeping track of how stingy the Cardinals’ ace is being with the free passes. In his most recent start Friday night against the rival Reds, Adam Wainwright tossed another seven brilliant innings, striking out seven Reds and issuing just one walk. That brings his season total to seven walks (in an NL-leading 96 innings), versus 91 strikeouts. His K/BB ratio is 13-to-1, still tops in either league. He has also allowed only two home runs this season.
- Kyle Blanks, who looks like a defensive end trying his hand at baseball, is giving San Diego’s lineup a much needed jolt of power (6 HR, 21 RBI, 17 runs) since being recalled in mid-April. Chris Denorfia and Will Venable are acceptable 4th outfielders, but neither has any business playing regularly ahead of Blanks.
- I don’t understand all the surprise about Jeff Baker and his 8 home runs for the Rangers this season. He’s not an unknown rookie, folks. In 2008, he thumped 12 long balls with the Rockies. He held the utility job with the Cubs from 2009-12 (until Theo Epstein started his Windy City rebuilding project). Always had some pop in his bat; now he’s in a great hitter’s park. Perfect situation for Baker.
- Speaking of puzzling fantasy analysis, what’s with all the love for Casey Kotchman in Miami? He was the Opening Day first baseman, but was injured April 3 spent two months on the disabled list. Upon his return, he’s gone 0-for-16. He doesn’t have a hit this season. All he was doing is filling a roster spot until the REAL first baseman of the Marlins’ future returned: Logan Morrison (who was activated Sunday). That’s the name that smart fantasy analysts should have been filing away.
- Tell me whether you recognize this feeling: you see a slugfest, like the Padres-Rockies 11-9 game Friday night and you think to yourself “Sweet! Lots of fantasy goodness here!” Then you check the boxscore and…..nothing. Your fantasy player contributed a big fat ZERO to the game (coughChaseHeadleycough). If there is a more annoying feeling in fantasy sports, I don’t know what it is.
- Is the Frenchy love-fest finally over in Kansas City? It should be. Jeff Francoeur has been as terrible the past few weeks as well (one measly homer, four extra-base hits, five RBI since May 1). Never a player interested in drawing a walk, Frenchy has seen his OPS drop to a ghastly .375 in June. At least fans can take solace knowing that Wil Myers is on the way….er, um, wait. Never mind.
- The 18-inning game, 5 ½-hour tilt between the Rangers and Blue Jays on Saturday was the longest game in the history of either franchise.
- Here are some notes from the longest game of the season, the 20-inning marathon endured by fans Saturday between the Mets and Marlins (won by the Marlins 2-1):
- The two teams combined to leave 32 men on base (22 by the Mets!) and whiff 35 times.
- Four pitchers turned in quality starts: original starters Jose Fernandez (6 IP, 1 ER, 7 Ks), Matt Harvey (7 IP, 1 ER, 6 Ks), plus Miami’s Kevin Slowey (7 IP, 8 hits, 8 Ks) and New York’s Shaun Marcum (8 IP, 5 hits, 7 Ks). Despite his yeoman’s job out of the bullpen, Marcum was charged with the loss.
- Daniel Murphy had two of the most eventful outs of the game: first, he was thrown out at home to end the 12th inning, then his potential game-tying homer was caught on the warning track to end the game.
- Marlins’ rookie outfielder Marcell Ozuna’s throw to gun down Murphy at the plate was part of a beautiful double play to end the 12th. Ozuna sprinted to the right-field line to rob Marlon Byrd of a hit, then he fired a strike to catcher Rob Brantly, who held on to the ball despite a ferocious collision with Murphy.
- Entering Sunday’s game, Ozuna is hitting .328 in 35 games since being called up. At 22, he is giving Marlins fans (all six of them) another reason to keep watching while Giancarlo Stanton is on the DL.
- Mets fans have got to be holding their breath after their ace, Harvey, depart the game with back pain. Harvey and David Wright are all that separates the Mets from being Marlins Part 2.
- How the Rockies remain above .500 is beyond me. In addition to trotting out Garland and Francis far too often this year, their bullpen (other than Rex Brothers) has been putrid. Friday night, some guy named Rob Scahill allowed five runs without retiring a batter, as the Rockies twice gagged away a six-run lead. I was there. It was one of the worst relief performances I have ever seen in quite some time. Sunday was just as bad. Juan Nicasio was perfect for 5 1/3 innings before tiring. By the time the bullpen finished pouring turpentine on the fire, the Padres had gone from trailing 4-0 to leading 7-4. Even with help on the way (Roy Oswalt, Tyler Chatwood), it’s probably time to start searching for relief help. If the bullpen doesn’t get upgraded soon, all the hitting heroics in the world won’t save the Rockies season.
- Sending good thoughts to Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy. Already on the DL with shoulder inflammation last week, McCarthy suffered a seizure that doctors said was related to his head injury last season. Scary stuff. McCarthy has told reporters that he is fine now. I hope that is truly the case.
- Finally, heartfelt condolences to the family of legendary Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, whose wife lost her battle with brain cancer last Thursday. She was just 64.
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